John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Lochinver sale raises quality of election debates

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Official campaign hasn’t begun but leaders are warming to the task

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

The Road to Victory in the 2014 election is not paved with gold - Dotcom's or anybody else's.

It is already a deeply rutted and muddy track littered with an unsightly mish-mash of copycat policies, supposedly non-negotiable bottom lines, ever escalating spending promises and ever more demeaning insults flung willy-nilly seemingly merely for the sake of it.

All this and the election campaign technically has yet to begin.

Like so much in this crazy election, even the traditional four-week campaign is not sacrosanct, however.

Labour and New Zealand First launch their parties' respective campaigns at separate rallies in Auckland tomorrow despite the fact there are still six weeks before election day. Yes, six weeks.

This early start is designed to pull National off its comfortable perch of incumbency where it would sit happily until polling day if allowed, and instead force that party to mix it on more equal terms with its rivals.

The rationale is that the longer the campaign, the more time for National to make costly mistakes.

National did not want to be dragged into the campaign at such an early stage. But neither could it afford to let David Cunliffe or Winston Peters set the election agenda while John Key pretended it was business as usual in the Beehive.

While National's launch is still two weeks away, Key is likewise almost in full campaign mode, spending much of this week on the road.

Speaking to audiences on the Kapiti Coast on Wednesday - and greatly assisted by favourable unemployment figures released that morning - the Prime Minister engaged in soft-sell of National's economic record by largely letting it speak for itself.

His other theme was stability. He posed just one question: if Cunliffe could not control his own caucus, how would the Labour leader keep a rein on the Greens, Internet-Mana and NZ First in a four-party coalition government?

However, Key also displayed some frustration.

There was an over-the-top warning that too many parties adopting too many non-negotiable bottom-lines might make forming a viable Government impossible and force another election.

That is extremely unlikely to happen. It would require a very unusual configuration of the parties in the new Parliament. It would also require a number of those parties to refuse to work together.

Key's missive that bottom-lines were "unhelpful" and another election might be needed to break the deadlock was directed at Peters. Key was warning him National's patience had its limits.

He was also reminding Peters that another election would see someone severely punished by voters for failing to compromise - and that someone would not be National.

Peters, however, is a deft player at this cat-and-mouse game. He understands there are severe limits on what NZ First can gain in post-election haggling

He tends not to talk in terms of bottom-lines, preferring slightly more flexible language which enables him to deny that he took a position on something which everyone assumed he had.

If there was ever an issue that had to be a bottom-line for NZ First it is blocking the sale of the 13,800ha Lochinver Station on the Napier-Taupo highway to Chinese interests.

Even more so, given the purchaser, Shanghai Pengxin, was the very same company which bought the Crafar farms in 2012.

As it was, Conservative Party leader Colin Craig gazumped Peters by being the first with the news of the sale.

Craig appeared to have hit the jackpot last Friday in a manner worthy of Peters - but which Labour never manages to do - by instantly connecting with a large segment of the voting population which is very uncomfortable with the scale and regularity of big chunks of New Zealand land being offloaded to wealthy foreigners, as well as the Chinese staging a surreptitious bypassing and ultimate marginalisation of the local dairy industry.

However, the following day saw Peters appearing on TV3's The Nation - much to the surprise, disappointment and annoyance of Craig and his party.

The Conservatives are discovering the awful Catch 22-like scenario facing parties outside Parliament. To get media coverage, you have to be close to the 5 per cent threshold; to get close to the threshold, you need media coverage.

Peters also has to deliver to his supporters, however.

Unlike his costly talk of the state buying back the 50 per cent stake that National sold in Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy, there is no budgetary impact in rejecting a recommendation from the Overseas Investment Office that the sale of Lochinver Station be approved.

If National needs NZ First on board after the election to secure a majority on confidence and supply, Key has to give ground on foreign ownership - otherwise Peters would look weak.

National's major problem is that any further tightening of the regulations would have the Chinese querying New Zealand's commitment to a supposedly pro-active Government-sponsored campaign to boost investment in each other's country.

The other difficulty is one of timing.

Even if the Overseas Investment Office was to come through with a recommendation on the application for approval of the the Lochinver sale before the election, it would be within the "caretaker" period which forbids governments to make major decisions until after the election and a new government is in place.

The quandary for National then is how to guarantee to Peters that the application for approval of Shanghai Pengxin's application for purchase will be turned down by ministers, when to do so is to acknowledge that ministers have prejudged the matter and therefore will likely face legal action from the vendor or purchaser.

Cunliffe is now saying point-blank that Labour will block the sale if it wins the election.

Exactly how is not clear, given the application falls under current law and not the rewrite Labour is planning to ensure ministers have only very limited discretion to approve rural land sales.

An "economic test" would be written into the law that would stipulate any extra jobs or exports flowing from foreign owners be additional to any increase which would have happened anyway if a New Zealander had bought the land.

Following the Crafar Farms case in the High Court, the Overseas Investment Office is asking applicants to provide such information.

In the case of Lochinver Station, expansion into dairying, deer farming and tourism are seen as ways of boosting jobs and potentially exports.

But that could equally have happened under continued New Zealand ownership.

As Federated Farmers noted this week, it is difficult to see what innovation, technological or managerial, Shanghai Pengxin could bring to the enterprise that would not have been already available in New Zealand.

With the help of Craig, Shanghai Pengxin have raised the standard of debate in an election campaign, official or not yet official, which is fixated with definitions of "sugar-daddy" and what exactly constitutes a Hitler Youth rally.

- NZ Herald

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